3AW Breakfast - interview with Nick McCallum

  • Transcript, E&OE

NICK MCCALLUM First of all, have you and the Prime Minister been in direct contact with the French Government?

JULIE BISHOP Yes, we have. The Embassy in Paris – the Australian Embassy in Paris – has hand-delivered a letter from me to my counterpart Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and I know that the Prime Minster will be speaking to the French President at some stage over the next two days.

I have also been in contact with the French Ambassador here in Australia and I have been speaking regularly with our Ambassador in Paris, Stephen Brady. He has been in contact with the Government at the highest levels. He has been speaking to the Interior Minister's office and he actually met with the Chief of Defence yesterday.

So we have made it quite clear that the Australian Government stands in solidarity with the people and the Government of France at this terrible time and stand united with those around the world and condemn the violent attacks in Paris that have killed 12 people – ten journalists and two police officers – and injured many more. So we certainly condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms.

NICK MCCALLUM Minister, given that there had been I think at least three other attacks in France, were you surprised that this happened?

JULIE BISHOP Tragically a terrorist attack can happen anytime, anywhere, as we have seen in recent times around the world. Indeed there were some random attacks in Paris during December. According to our Ambassador in Paris, Stephen Brady, he said the French people were bracing themselves for some kind of attack but they are still profoundly shocked by the extent and scale of this. These are militant extremists who are seeking to destroy all that we stand for in open, free and liberal democracies.

There can certainly be no excuse at all, no justification for mass murder. If people don't like this magazine, if it is too provocative or offensive, don't buy it, don't read it but there is no excuse for this atrocious act that has been carried out.

The French Authorities have responded by raising their domestic terror threat to the highest level – that is 'Alert: Attack' – and that is in two regions - around Paris and Picardy, a region about 70 kilometres northeast of Paris. That is where, we understand, the gunmen were last sighted, who are still at large. The reason I mention that is there are a number of Australian war graves in Picardy – it is a tourist attraction, particularly for Australians wanting to visit these World War I grave sites.

So I do point out that the French Authorities have now designated that region at the highest level of 'Alert: Attack' and I urge all Australians in France or travelling to France to register on the Smartraveller website and to take notice of the directions of the French authorities.

NICK MCCALLUM At least one of the gunmen was believed to have been a foreign fighter in Syria and to have returned home. You can tell by how brutal the attack was and how well-planned it was that obviously what he learnt there he used to awful effect in Paris. What then is the warning to us, what will we learn from that given we have a number of foreign fighters who have come home?

JULIE BISHOP Indeed. That is why we are working so closely with other countries who find themselves in a situation of having foreign terrorist fighters amongst its citizens. We are working very closely with the security and intelligence and law enforcement agencies in France, Britain, the United States, Canada, Indonesia, throughout our region. We are working very closely with them, sharing information and learning from each other.

What we are seeking to do here is to disrupt and deter people from leaving Australia to fight with the terrorist organisations, particularly ISIL or Daesh as it is known in Iraq and Syria, to prevent them learning the ways of terrorists, prevent them from becoming battle-hardened experienced terrorists. Because our own history shows that people who have gone to these terrorist hotspots and learned from the terrorists, if they get back to Australia they do seek to carry out terrorist activities.

We saw that in relation to Afghanistan when there were about 30 Australian citizens who trained with Al Qaeda, 25 returned to Australia, about 19 were thought to have taken part in terrorist activities, a number of them were detained, a number of them jailed. We have now got about five times that number of people of interest to our intelligence and security agencies and law enforcement agencies. So it is a real risk. That is why terrorism is considered our number one security priority at present.

NICK MCCALLUM What more can the Government do to protect Australians knowing as we do already, there are a number of returned foreign fighters who can't be prosecuted because the laws didn't change until after they had come back?

JULIE BISHOP Well that is not quite right Nick. The laws are there and we have passed new laws recently creating new offences relating to terrorist activities. If we have the evidence that would justify people being detained, arrested, prosecuted then of course we would act. But as I have said on a number of occasions, it is very difficult for us to gather the evidence of what is going on in Iraq and Syria. We have very limited consular or diplomatic representation in Iraq because of the security situation. We don't have that kind of representation in Syria.

It is unlikely that you get first hand witnesses so we have to work in partnership with other security, law enforcement and intelligence agencies overseas to gather that kind of evidence. If we have the evidence then we can act. What we have to do is ensure that our agencies here are well-resourced with the appropriate level of funding so that they can undertake the kind of disruption and deterrent activities that we have seen in recent times.

The New South Wales Police, the Australian Federal Police, are constantly engaged in seeking to disrupt what we perceive to be terrorist activity here at home. The Australian Government will not rest until we can be assured that every step that can be taken is being taken to keep Australians safe here and abroad.

NICK MCCALLUM Are we likely, in the foreseeable future, to lift our rating?

JULIE BISHOP That is a matter for our security and intelligence agencies. We respond to their advice, they are the one who make that determination and of course we abide by it. As you know, last year we raised the threat level to High and that remains the advice that we have received. As I point out, though, in France they have raised it to another level, but our intelligence and security agencies have no evidence to suggest that what has occurred in France will have a direct impact here in Australia. Should they do so, then of course they will act accordingly.

NICK MCCALLUM I know it is obviously early days, but is there anything that the Australian Authorities, the Australian Government, can learn out of the French experience?

JULIE BISHOP I know that our agencies are in contact with French agencies and of course the police operations are still underway to find the gunmen. It is a very tense time in France. As I said, I spoke to our Ambassador again this morning, I have spoken to him a couple of times now, and he said the situation is very tense in Paris. But this atrocity has really struck a nerve with the people of France. Tens of thousands of them are joining together in solidarity.

Their authorities are focussing on the current situation of trying to locate these gunmen, of course, because that is a national security issue in France. But longer term, we will continue to work with France and other countries on counter-radicalisation measures, on counter-terrorism measures, exchanging information, exchanging experiences.

NICK MCCALLUM So many callers at this radio program and other radio programs say 'if these guys want to go and fight as foreign fighters, why not just let them go, we will be glad to get rid of them'?

JULIE BISHOP I understand that sentiment. However we do not want people going over there in the first place and getting first-hand experience as a terrorist. It is all very well to talk about it in Australia, but once they actually get the experience and be trained with terrorist organisations like ISIL - which is brutal, murderous, barbaric, we have never seen anything like it - then if they come, not only back to Australia but if they go to another country, they won't necessarily come back to Australia, they could come to a country in our region for example and Australians would still be at risk, so we have to deter them from going in the first place.

Once they are there of course there are a whole range of things that we can do including cancelling passports and seeking to have them come to the attention of law enforcement agencies overseas. But this is a significant global issue. There are many countries that count among its citizens foreign terrorist fighters. So this is not just an Australian concern, this is a concern worldwide and we are fighting against militant extremists who are seeking to destroy us and all we stand for and our values.

A country like France – similar to Australia where open, free, tolerant, pluralistic society – and to have this kind of atrocity shocks us all, we certainly extend our deepest sympathies to the families and relatives and friends of those who have been killed and also those who have been injured in this attack.

NICK MCCALLUM Finally one other topic, is there much more you can do – or the Prime Minister can do – to approach the Indonesian Government regarding the fate of the two members of the Bali Nine, who it now appears is going to have their appeals for clemency denied?

JULIE BISHOP It relates to Mr Sukumaran – the relation in matter to Mr Chan has not yet been decided so I do not want to speculate on the outcome of his appeal for clemency – but we understand the Indonesian President has rejected Mr Sukumaran's appeal for clemency. We will continue to make representations at the highest levels.

We have to acknowledge that under Indonesian laws, certain drug-related offences carry the death penalty. But Australia opposes the death penalty and will continue to advocate against the execution of any Australian citizen. But we have to keep open all the political, diplomatic, legal and bureaucratic channels with Indonesia so we can continue to engage at every level.

NICK MCCALLUM But that won't stop you for being forthright will it?

JULIE BISHOP Absolutely not. The Indonesian Government is in no doubt where the Australian Government stands on the issue of the death penalty. And we will continue to advocate against the execution of any Australian citizen. Indeed the Indonesian Government itself makes representations to other countries where Indonesian nationals may be facing the death penalty. So we will continue to make those representations at the highest levels to the Indonesian Government.

NICK MCCALLUM Julie Bishop, Foreign Minister, thank you for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP My pleasure, thanks Nick.

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